Two weeks ago, Jon Rahm was playing the golf of his life at the Memorial at Muirfield Village, equalling the tournament’s 54-hole record at 18 under par and opening a six-stroke lead over the field, only to be informed on live television while coming off the 18th green that he would have to withdraw after testing positive for the coronavirus.
The guidelines of the PGA Tour and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – the US public health agency – require 10 days of self-isolation after a positive test, limiting Rahm’s ability to practise before the US Open. Only because he was able to return two negative tests within 24 hours was he permitted to cut his quarantine short and arrive at Torrey Pines Golf Course for the season’s third major before Tuesday.
It was the sort of wrinkle that once might have derailed the fiery 26-year-old Spaniard, whose temperament at times has obscured his formidable talent. But rather than pout or whinge or point fingers, Rahm said he relied on the “power of positive thinking” in helping him maintain the mindset that got him over the line for his first major title on Sunday, crediting advice he received from Pádraig Harrington, three times a major winner, and Nick Faldo, who won six, for helping him through the ordeal.
“Pádraig told me a story in which he was leading by five after 54 holes, signed the wrong scorecard, and got disqualified,” Rahm said. “He said he got a lot more from that instance, he learned a lot more than he would ever learn from the win.
“Nick Faldo texted me the next morning and told me a story of how he was winning a tournament. He was leading by six with six holes to go and got disqualified, as well, and how he learned from that and got a win the week after. I had in mind Pádraig and Nick when I was out there on the golf course a couple of times knowing that they won shortly after, and I knew today was my day.”
Rahm started Sunday’s final round as one of 13 players within four shots of the lead. As one contender after another fell out of contention, Rahm played steady, effective golf up and down the 7,685-yard South Course until moving to strike in the final reel. Trailing Louis Oosthuizen by one shot, Rahm curled in a left-to-right downhill putt from 25 feet on the 17th hole for birdie. Then he got up and down from a greenside bunker on the par‑five 18th, sinking an 18-foot birdie putt for a one-shot lead on the same green where he made a 60-footer for eagle to win his first PGA Tour title four years ago.
An agonising wait followed as Rahm decamped to the practice range to stay warm for a potential two-hole play-off. But when Oosthuizen made a bogey at the 17th after sending a tee shot into the canyon to fall two shots adrift, then failed to wedge in for eagle from 69 yards on the 18th fairway, Rahm could finally celebrate with his wife, Kelley, and their three-month-old son, Kepa.
“I believe from the biggest setbacks we can get some of the biggest breakthroughs, and that’s why I stay so positive,” Rahm said. “That’s why I kept telling Kelley, when she was devastated about what happened, and my family and everybody around me: ‘Something good is going to come. I don’t know what, but something good is going to come,’ and I felt it today out there on the golf course.”
The thinning out of Sunday’s bunched leaderboard began abruptly on the back nine, where almost en masse the contenders began crumbling. No hole piled on more punishment than the 222‑yard par-three 11th, where more than half the pack came unstuck. Mackenzie Hughes made a double-bogey after his tee shot became lodged in a tree, while Rory McIlroy three-putted to fall three shots off of the pace before a double-bogey on the 12th.
Bryson DeChambeau also suffered at the 11th shortly after moving into sole possession of the lead at five under by nearly acing the par-three 8th. The defending champion ended a streak of 30 straight holes in par or better with a bogey on the 11th, then another on the 12th and a double on the 13th.
Matthew Wolff three-putted on the 12th to drop to one over and out of the running. Collin Morikawa made a mess of things after finding a thick patch of rough on the par‑five 13th, then watched a 12-foot putt lip out for a double‑bogey seven. Brooks Koepka fell out of contention with bogeys on the 15th and 18th.
By the time Oosthuizen made his first birdie of the day on the 10th to move six under and open a two-stroke lead as Rahm escaped the perilous 11th and 12th holes unscathed, it was an effective two‑man race. That’s where positive thinking took over, allowing Rahm to tick the final box for a player who had won nearly everything on offer besides one of golf’s four bedrock events.
“It almost feels like it’s a movie that’s about to end,” he said. “And I’m going to wake up soon.”